Will Obama be remembered as the Snooper President?

The President is caught riding rough-shod over privacy for the second time in a month.

This is a bad one. At 7:05PM last night, the Guardian published this story, that the National Security Administration had, using a top secret court order, been collecting all of the phone data from Verizon, one of America's biggest phone networks. Not just some of the data; not just of certain individuals under specific investigation: all of it. Every single customer.

It seems Obama will be remembered as the Snooper President. This story comes at the worst possible time for him, struggling as he already is to drag his second term free of the scandals in which it has been mired. Not only that, this is the second government department in less than a month shown to have been wildly overzealous in taking phone records: the Justice Department was caught subpoenaing the same data from Associated Press journalists just a few weeks ago.

The leaked document obtained by the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, which is marked Top Secret, instructs the phone company to produce “all call detail records or 'telephony metadata'” for all communications operated by Verizon within the US, and from the US to other countries, and then continue to produce it, ongoing, for the three month duration of the order.

What is being collected isn't call content – this isn't a wire-tapping operation – but metadata; when a call is made, and to whom, and for how long. James Ball at the Guardian gives a good run-down of what this means here.

In essence what this scandal means is that the Obama-era NSA has simply continued Bush-era tactics. In an eerily similar scandal in 2005, a whistleblower revealed that the NSA had been intercepting telephone records wholesale from AT&T, another telecommunications giant, with the same sort of injunction; which implies that Verizon probably isn't the only network whose records are being obtained by the government – though it is the only network implicated in this particular leak.

Of course, the President usually doesn't personally sign off on these things. But that there have been so many violations on his watch hints troublingly of a White House culture that sets a low premium on privacy.

There is a defence to all this, of course. You and I do not work in the Oval Office. We do not know the dangers the US may face, and we do not know how many lives have been saved in exchange for this privacy. It is the NSA's job to keep people safe, and if it feels it can track terrorists by correlating certain patterns of phone behaviour, then perhaps there is an argument that they are right to do so. Perhaps it is worth it.

But citizens were not given any choice in the matter. This – like the AP subpoena – happened in secret, “Top Secret” in this case. Maybe privacy had to be overridden, and maybe it had to be in secret, for the greater good. But this presidency – this President – wasn't supposed to operate like this.

(It is not just the administration at fault here, it has to be said. MSNBC's Adam Serwer astutely pointed out that Congress has twice had the opportunity to vote on amendments that would at least partially to lift the lid on NSA secret surveillance, and twice voted against it.)

Further worrying questions are raised by this issue too, perhaps most haunting of which is: could the secret court order as used by the NSA to requisition data from Verizon – and simultaneously gag them – be used for, say, Facebook data? Or Google data? The NSA is an incredibly secretive organisation; the truth is, we don't know what they are able to do until, like yesterday, it leaks out.

I'll end with a quote from a crucial campaign speech Obama made in August 2007, entitled “The War We Need To Win.” In this speech, the ambitious upstart Senator set out his policy stall for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. With a directness that his oratory has lacked of late, Obama eviscerated the Bush administration's policies for riding roughshod over privacy protections in the name of national security.

This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

Obama, back in 2007, talking about Bush, concluded: “This Administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not.”

In the six years since that speech was given, nothing seems to have changed.

The NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.